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A smirking Nick Griffin gets hit with tough questions on Britain's flagship public affairs show.
LONDON, U.K. — The BBC is one of those staid, correct institutions that characterize a fading era of British life. It is beloved like a slightly odd spinster. Its nickname locally is Auntie Beeb. Well, there was a small riot at Auntie's house Thursday night. Most uncharacteristic.
About 1,000 people clashed with police outside BBC Television Center in west London. The reason? Nick Griffin, head of the ultra-right, racially exclusive British National Party (BNP) was appearing on the Beeb's flagship current affairs discussion program, "Question Time." It was the first time the controversial politician had been invited onto the forum, whose panel usually consists of senior politicians from each of the three main political parties and a top-tier journalist or advocate. The protesters were furious that a man they consider a fascist was being elevated to equal status in the mainstream.
Three people were arrested, several policemen were injured and 25 protesters managed to break into the heavily secured BBC compound, only to be dragged back out again by BBC security staff. It made compelling viewing on the 24-hour news channels as did the telephone interviews with Nick Griffin, who was briefly trapped in the mob as his car tried to get to the entry gates.
It wasn't just young anti-fascist protesters who were exercised. Ever since Griffin was invited on the show more than a month ago, his presence on the August panel has occasioned running debate in the British press about free speech and whether hate speech is a reasonable limit to the ancient right of saying what you please. Free speech advocates and the management of the BBC said that as the leader of a party that had just won two seats in the European Parliamentary elections it was no longer possible to keep Griffin off. Others, like Peter Hain, a member of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's cabinet and one of the leaders of Britain's anti-Apartheid movement in the 1970s and 1980s, argued forcefully that Griffin practiced hate speech and should not be allowed on the panel. His presence would give his views the oxygen of publicity.
Among Griffin's views: The number of Holocaust dead is greatly exaggerated (there are warrants out for his arrest in France and Germany for Holocaust denial). He has called Britain a "multi-racial hell-hole" and wants Britain to return to what it was "11 years before I was born: 99 percent white." He has appeared at Ku Klux Klan rallies. His comments on Islam and homosexuality are in a similar vein.
But for many the real reason to fear a Griffin appearance was this: He is media savvy and has completely reorganized his party to make its views more palatable. Instead of speaking of white supremacy, he talks of the rights of "indigenous British people." Under his leadership, the BNP has even published a "Language and Concept Discipline Manual" for its spokesmen and recruiters to follow.
It was not easy to put together a panel to debate with Griffin. Eventually, Jack Straw, Labour's Minister for Justice, agreed to come on the show. He was followed by Chris Huhne, a leading Liberal Democrat and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, social cohesion spokesperson for the Conservative Party.